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VOL. 124 | NO. 37 | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Diocese Settles With Man Abused as Teen

By Bill Dries

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The Catholic Diocese of Memphis has come to a legal settlement with a man sexually abused as a teenager nine years ago by a Dominican priest.

The settlement was announced Monday in Circuit Court at the start of the last hearing on motions before the John Doe lawsuit goes to trial.

The trial is still set to begin with jury selection on March 2. The Dominican religious order remains as the only defendant.

No terms of the settlement were announced and no court order had been drafted late Monday.

“We have reached a resolution with the diocese,” announced attorney Gary K. Smith, representing the man who was abused when he was 14 years old by father Juan Carlos Duran.

Unresolved issues

The boy filed suit against the diocese and the religious order when he turned 18 years old in 2004. It was one of the first two civil suits filed against the church alleging child sexual abuse. The suit alleged the diocese and the religious order knew or should have known that Duran was a danger to children.

Diocesan general counsel Marty Regan confirmed the agreement for Circuit Court Judge Charles O. McPherson.

“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” McPherson said.

Steve Vescovo, attorney for the Dominicans, acknowledged settlement talks between his client and the teenager have been ongoing “for quite some time.”

“We have not resolved it yet,” he told McPherson.

Duran, originally from Bolivia, came to Memphis in 1999 to be the first priest specifically assigned to minister to the city’s growing Hispanic community. He was assigned to Church of the Ascension in Raleigh and lived at St. Peter’s Catholic Church Downtown. Duran arrived in Memphis with a history of sexual abuse allegations that began in his native Bolivia.

He was expelled from the Franciscan order for such abuse and Franciscan superiors warned Dominican superiors about Duran. More allegations of child sexual abuse cropped up when Duran was in a St. Louis seminary.

Dominican officials said nothing of the abuse allegations when Duran was assigned to Memphis. But diocesan officials never got a letter of good standing from the Dominican order that is required by the diocese. They also overlooked a decade-long gap in Duran’s resume and never questioned him about his activities during that time.

Under advisement

Duran sexually abused the boy, also from Bolivia, for a period of about six weeks starting in January 2000. The abuse ended when Duran got the boy drunk, sexually abused him and both passed out. When they awoke the boy became physically ill and Duran drove him home. The boy’s mother was waiting and pressed her son for details. The boy, reluctantly at first, told her of the abuse.

The family immediately consulted with an attorney and family friend, who also arranged for mental counseling for the boy. But the psychiatrist would only see the boy if the incident was reported to authorities. It wasn’t reported because the family feared such a report might endanger their ability to stay in the U.S. Smith said church officials also advised the family not to report the abuse for possible criminal prosecution.

The first church leader who was contacted was father Richard Mickey, the pastor of Church of the Ascension, where Duran was assigned. The boy told Mickey what had happened and Mickey told the boy he should not discuss it with anyone else.

Mickey has been deposed in the case. He was a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed about the same time the Duran case was filed. Mickey was accused of abusing twin brothers during the 1980s when both were students at Bishop Byrne High School and Mickey was a counselor there. That lawsuit was settled out of court after a deposition was taken in the case from a man who claimed that a decade later he and Mickey had a relationship and were a “couple” when Mickey was a teacher at Memphis Catholic High School and the man was a senior at the school. Mickey has since been reassigned to head the diocesan archives.

Mickey and other diocesan leaders immediately suspended Duran and confronted him about the charges. Duran admitted the abuse and was sent to a “treatment” facility in Baltimore. He returned from the facility and immediately began seeking assignments to other parishes. When he couldn’t get other assignments, he left the priesthood and left the country, according to diocesan officials.

Days of reckoning

The Dominican order paid for treatment of the boy as well as his high school tuition.

Diocesan attorneys say they believe Tennessee state law does not require them to report such abuse when it involves children older than 13 years old.

It’s a position Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons publicly disagreed with and called into question in 2005. The disagreement led to a closed door meeting between prosecutors and diocesan attorneys in 2005.

Each side maintained its position after the meeting, but the diocese agreed to report all past and future allegations of abuse to state authorities regardless of the age of the alleged victims. The diocese also turned over a list of seven to 10 priests accused in the past.

In a pre-trial hearing earlier this month, diocesan attorney Brook Lathram said 15 priests assigned to Memphis had been accused of child sexual abuse – either in reports to church leaders or in civil lawsuits – since the Diocese of Memphis was founded in 1971.

Among the pre-trial motions still to be ruled on by McPherson is one to unseal redacted depositions in the case that deal with specifics of the Duran case as well as allegations of child sexual abuse made against other priests and how they were handled by the church.

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